Socialist Worker

Labour purges show limits of reformism

Labour’s long history of expulsions is ultimately driven by the party’s focus on parliament, writes Nick Clark

Issue No. 2521

Militant Tendancy founder Ted Grant

Militant Tendancy founder Ted Grant (Pic: John Sturrock)


This article is part of an ongoing series

This article is part of an ongoing series:


Official figures show that 3,107 people have been suspended from the Labour Party ahead of the leadership election.

The Labour right claimed this showed there had been no purge of Corbyn supporters as “only” a few thousand had been barred from voting.

But Corbyn supporters and the left were clearly targeted. Many had already been excluded after Labour’s national executive decided 120,000 new members weren’t eligible to vote.

It isn’t the first time that left wing Labour members have been hounded out of the party.

Expulsions of Militant tendency supporters took place throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

Militant was a far left grouping inside Labour that aimed to win the party to what it saw as a revolutionary programme.

Its growth was portrayed as a “Trotskyist” takeover of the party.

But Militant grew as the left around MP Tony Benn was growing too.

Labour’s leadership used a purge to force Bennites to decide whether they would break from the party or remain loyal to its leadership.

It was a similar story when Labour’s leaders witch-hunted Communist Party members in the 1920s.

The Communist Party had repeatedly applied for affiliation to Labour as an openly revolutionary organisation.

It was defeated each year at Labour’s conference by the trade union block vote.

Yet several Communist delegates were often elected to conference by trade union and local branches.

Some openly Communist Party members were selected as parliamentary candidates.

Industrial struggle at the beginning of the 1920s meant many workers were looking towards radical and socialist ideas.

Communists had gained the respect of many Labour members by working alongside them in struggle.

Yet the Labour Party was on the verge of forming the first Labour government—and its leaders were desperate to prove they were “respectable”. Association with revolutionaries was unacceptable.

Labour’s leadership waged a long and brutal war to eradicate the Communists from the party’s ranks.

They finally managed it in 1928—after dissolving at least 27 local parties, stitching up conference and banning members from even sharing platforms with Communists.

The left battled on, forming the Socialist League in 1932. A Labour government had just collapsed after attacking workers to pay for an economic crisis, yet still failing to satisfy bankers’ demands.

The defeat—and revulsion at Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald leaving the party to head up a national government—produced a swing to the left among members.

Labour’s leadership went part of the way with them. But they would only go so far.

Being foisted out of government by unelected bankers should have shown the limits of fighting for workers’ interests inside the bosses’ system.

Instead, Labour’s leaders tried ever harder to prove the party could manage capitalism responsibly.

Members were soon banned from being in the Socialist League. Its leaders—Stafford Cripps and Nye Bevan—were expelled.

The battle between left and right has been a near-constant feature of Labour’s history.

The left look to Labour MPs to represent the working class. But the MPs, chasing right wing votes or trying to look “responsible”, always turn on them.

In a party focused on winning change in parliament, the right come out on top.

Challenging them means organising where the left is strongest—among the hundreds of thousands who have joined Labour in search of a real alternative.

But beating the right once and for all will mean breaking from them entirely—and organising to challenge the system that has kept them in place.

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